The Karasuk Culture: Potentially the Ancestors of Iranian and later Scytho-Sarmatian nomads

With the advances of aDNA, we have now begun to tackle  questions, such as the origin of the “Scythian peoples”.  This was first seen with Unterlander et al (2017), and more were included into  Damgaard et al (2018). With the help of Allentoft et al (2015), Mathieson et al. (2018), Narasimhan et al. (2018), along the two previously mentioned papers, I will check the question of origin for the early Iranian nomads.

Bagley (n.d.), attempted to summarize the work on the early Zhou period and their interaction with Siberian Bronze Age center. This was based on work by  Loeuwe & Shaugnessy (1999). This highlights interesting aspects of the trade between these two groups, with artifacts related to the Karasuk culture spreading to not only China, but also towards Europe (Bagley, n.d.). While their early dating of a movement (Chernyk, 2008), does not really match the genetic view to this point, there are later samples which hint in this direction.


chernyk.png Since the time of Herodotus, many have had their own ideas on the origins of the Scythians. Mallory (1989) noted that some thought that the origin lie in the west, in the region north of the Black Sea. Others, saw the Scythians, and Iranians in general, as originating in Central Asia, and even Siberia. Some have even thought that a multi-regional origin was more likely, with changes being cultural, rather than demographic.

Davis-Kimball (2005), was one that saw the Scythians as a group that was multi-ethnic, rather than group with a single origin, or denoting a single group of people. Sometimes, anything west of Inner Mongolia and China was referred to as Scythian, but Scythian would also sometimes be restricted to those in the Western and Central Steppes (Di Cosimo, 1999).

steppe culturesThe first way to go at this, I feel, is to look at Karasuk. A culture that Mallory (1997), described as very mobile, compared to Andronovo, that is known more by their kurgan burials than their settlements. Karasuk is also seen as being highly influential and starting the animal art so common among the “Scythian” people (Keyser et al, 2009). Mallory (1997) even mentions the potential of the Karasuk to have a specific “proto-Iranian” identity. The influence of the Yenesei, and Slab Grave people cannot be underplayed (Mallory, 1997). Okunevo is thought to be a mix of Afanasievo and local Yeneseian groups (Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 1979), in an area later within the Andronovo sphere, and this mixing may likely be the formation of the Karasuk culture within the Minusinsk Basin. Okunevo is thought to be the group that introduced realistic animal art to these later steppe pastoralists as well.

First of all, I wanted to take a look at the Karasuk cluster that is closer to the Andronovo samples in PCA. To understand the make-up of Karasuk, I first used qpAdm to find a valid model of their origin. With qpAdm, the set of right populations, or outgroups chosen included Mbuti_DG, Ust_Ishim, Kostenki14, EHG, Villabruna, Ganj_Dareh_N, Anatolia_N, Steppe_EMBA, Karitiana, and the Ami.

The most successful model of the Karasuk culture needed excess Han-related ancestry, in addition to the ENA found in the Okunevo samples. Best exemplified with the Shamanka_BA run.


Chi-square Tail-prob Andronovo Okunevo Han
17.866 0.0222543 0.721 0.279 NA
std error 0.02 0.02 NA
Chi-square Tail-prob Andronovo Okunevo Han
9.613 0.211584 0.766 0.178 0.056
std error 0.026 0.04 0.019
Chi-square Tail-prob Andronovo Shamanka_BA
5.1 0.746845 0.814 0.186
std error 0.016 0.016

Looking at the Deeper Ancestry of the Karasuk Culture, I tried to make them a mix of Sintashta, Afanasievo, and an ENA group from the Baikal area, Shamanka_EN. This made sense as to making a mixture of a Siberian hunter, Bronze Age steppe pastoralists, and also Middle to Late Bronze Age groups in Central Asia. While the standard errors are a little high, it is clear that the dominant ancestry in Karasuk is Sintashta-related.

Chi-square Tail-prob Sintashta Shamanka_EN Afanasievo
6.196 0.625314 0.686 0.189 0.125
std error 0.069 0.014 0.07

After adding Steppe_MLBA, Germany_MN, and West_Siberia_N to the pright outgroups:

Chi-square Tail-prob Sintashta Shamanka_BA Afanasievo
7.951 0.633621 0.541 0.178 0.281
std error 0.081 0.017 0.081

Interstingly, the Karasuk is also seen to have expanded, if not influenced all the way towards the Black Sea, and at least the Aral Sea (((((((((Trying to relocate citation!!!!!!))))))))

Other samples, dating to about the same time, North of the Aral sea are seen in Mezhovskaya. Even more interesting, is that samples are near genetic dittos to the Karasuk samples. Could Mezhovskaya be part of the western Karasuk group that creates the great cultural uniformity among earlier Iranian nomads through the Scythian period? Potentially, yes.


Chi-square Tail-prob Andronovo Okunevo Han
12.248 0.140492 0.741 0.259 NA
std error 0.028 0.028 NA
Chi-square Tail-prob Andronovo Okunevo Han
6.036 0.535555 0.784 0.151 0.064
std error 0.032 0.051 0.025
Chi-square Tail-prob Andronovo Shamanka_BA
5.318 0.723087 0.846 0.154
std error ..022 0.022

With Chechushkov et al (2018), we see that horse-riding in battle may have begun in Central Asia between 1500-1200 BCE. Which is, of course, during the highly mobile Karasuk period and within the range of these groups.

Mezhovskaya can essentially be modeled as 100% Karasuk with qpAdm, as any additional ancestry is within the standard error of that component.

The next question then is, is Karasuk, and possibly by extension Mezhovskaya, the homeland and ancestors of the Scythians? Are they also ancestral to the western Scythians, as far as Hungary?


art by Johnny Shumate

The first Scythian group I looked at was the Tagar Culture, which followed the Karasuk in the Minusinsk Basin. The Karasuk is indeed very important here for the Tagar. Even the Karasuk+Karasuk outlier combo works here. What’s even more interesting about the Tagar culture, is the great similarity between their art and that of the European Scythians (Keyser et al, 2009; Encyclopaedia Britannica, n.d.).


Chi-square Tail-prob Karsuk Okunevo
5.291 0.726104 0.933 0.067
std error 0.037 0.037
Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk Shamanka_BA
7.201 0.515133 0.967 0.033
std error 0.021 0.021



The Pazyryk Culture is another well-known group of Scythians, that include the famous tattooed mummy. Their culture is seen as having been very warlike (Citation)))))))))))))

They also require a lot of Karasuk ancestry and also groups that are from nearby, or closely related groups to these samples.

Chi-square Tail-prob Karsuk Okunevo Han
16.037 0.0247822 0.313 0.34 0.347
std error 0.036 0.05 0.023
Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk ShamankaBA Han
1.761 0.971876 0.43 0.43 0.14
std error 0.028 0.08 0.061



Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk Okunevo
116.899 1.45E-21 0.41 0.59
std error 0.089 0.089
Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk BMAC Han
6.075 0.531047 0.568 0.099 0.333
std error 0.045 0.042 0.019


Tian-Shan Saka

Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk Okunevo BMAC Han
10.628 0.10059 0.574 0.134 0.21 0.082
std error 0.06 0.047 0.023 0.018
Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk ShamankaBA BMAC
10.703 0.152108 0.618 0.173 0.209
std error 0.04 0.017 0.033

The Tian-Shan Saka graph here did get a little over-complicated for my taste, but with such a complex mixture it might be bound to happen.



Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk Okunevo Han BMAC
6.786 .341095 0.429 0.284 0.180 0.107
std error 0.06 0.051 0.02 0.034
Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk Shamanka_BA BMAC
2.488 .927977 0.526 0.372 0.102
std error 0.044 0.019 0.036


Scythian_Samara (Steppe_IA)

Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk Armenia_EBA
20.194 0.00962638 0.923 0.077
std error 0.048 0.048
Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk BMAC
15.104 0.0571488 0.863 0.137
std error 0.042 0.042
Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk BMAC West_Siberia
9.936 0.192223 0.769 0.166 0.065
std error 0.067 0.045 0.037
Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk BMAC Botai
8.261 0.310125 0.674 0.236 0.089
std error 0.108 0.068 0.056
Chi-square Tail-prob Mezhovskaya BMAC
12.765 0.120182 0.913 0.087
std error 0.05 0.05
Chi-square Tail-prob Tagar BMAC
17.493 0.0253636 0.841 0.159
std error 0.042 0.042

Hungarian Scythian

Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk Hungary_BA
13.624 0.0921081 0.355 0.645
std error 0.035 0.035
Chi-square Tail-prob Karasuk Balkan_BA
13.99 0.0820368 0.247 0.753
std error 0.037 0.037
Chi-square Tail-prob Scythian_Samara Hungary_BA
18.514 0.0176836 0.314 0.686
std error 0.029 0.029
Chi-square Tail-prob Mezhovskaya Hungary_BA
16.258 0.0388319 0.339 0.661
std error 0.043 0.043



Allentoft et al., Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia, Nature 522, 167–172 (11 June 2015) doi:10.1038/nature14507

Bagley, R. Shang Archaeology; The Northern Zone. (1999)

“Central Asian arts: Neolithic and Metal Age cultures”. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica

Chechushkov et al., Early horse bridle with cheekpieces as a marker of social change: An experimental and statistical study, Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 97, September 2018, Pages 125-136,

Chernykh, The Formation of the Eurasian “Steppe Belt” of Stockbreeding Cultures.

Di Cosimo, Nicola, “The Northern Frontier in Pre-Imperial China (1,500 – 221 BC)”, in: M. Loeuwe, E.L. Shaughnessy, eds, The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221BC, 1999, Cambridge University Press 1999, ISBN 9780521470308

Keyser, Christine; Bouakaze, Caroline; Crubézy, Eric; Nikolaev, Valery G.; Montagnon, Daniel; Reis, Tatiana; Ludes, Bertrand (May 16, 2009). “Ancient DNA provides new insights into the history of south Siberian Kurgan people”. Human Genetics. Springer-Verlag.

Mallory, J. P. (1997). Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 1884964982.

Mathieson et al., (2018) The genomic history of southeastern Europe. Nature 555, 197-203. (Paper / doi:10.1038/nature25778)

Narasimhan et al, The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia, Posted March 31, 2018, doi:

“Okunev Culture”. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. 1979

Unterländer et al., Ancestry and demography and descendants of Iron Age nomads of the Eurasian Steppe, Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14615 (2017), doi:10.1038/ncomms14615

6 thoughts on “The Karasuk Culture: Potentially the Ancestors of Iranian and later Scytho-Sarmatian nomads”

  1. Fascinating. I’m going to have to take a much closer look at the cultures. But after seeing these models, things are really lining up for the Iranians and Scythians.

    But what about modern Iranian speakers like Persians? If we assume they have at least some ancestry from the original nomadic Iranians, do they show evidence of this east Eurasian rich Okunev type ancestry at some level?


  2. The Scythian animal style art is supposed to have originated in Altai then spread west
    The west Scythians don’t have great Chi-sq scores, possibly missing necessary samples , like post-Timber Grave groups like Noua-Sabatinivka & pre-Scythian (Novocherkassk, etc).


  3. At the same time, I doubt the Siberian ‘Scythians’ were Iranian speaking. The real Iranian Speaking Scythians were the Sakae, who expanded influence back west.


    1. That is actually what I was looking to expand on next. To see how they relate to later Huns and Turks, and the lack of BMAC in non-Sakae and Samara samples. The Hungarians are iffy and samples of the exact preceding pop would help.


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